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“The difference between dishonesty and make-believe, Shirley said, was artistic imagination.”

Crossroads

Jonathan Franzen is in peak form, and also back in familiar territory, with Crossroads, a Midwestern family drama set in the early 1970s. This is apparently the first installment in a planned trilogy, and I am eager to continue the story in Franzen’s future volumes.

Crossroads paints an unflinching portrait of the Hildebrandt family, consisting of parents (Russ and Marion) and four children (Clem, Becky, Perry, and Judson). The story is told from five points of view, viz., from the perspectives of each of the Hildebrandt family members except for the youngest son, Judson.

Russ is the associate pastor at a liberal protestant church who has fallen out of love with his wife and in love with a parishioner. He is also in competition with a younger, more dynamic pastor, Rick Ambrose, who leads the church’s youth group, named “Crossroads.” The youth group is popular with the local high school kids and is a bit of a personality cult for Rick Ambrose, who focuses more on New Age-y psychobabble than on religion.

Marion has a tragic past, which she keeps hidden from Russ and the kids, and is still haunted by it to this day. She makes an agreement with a particularly unscrupulous character in Crossroads, which she believes is responsible for all the trouble with her middle son, Perry.

Clem is the oldest of the Hildebrandt children and a freshman at the University of Illinois. He is reckless with the feelings of his girlfriend and decides to drop out of school to be drafted into the Vietnam War, much to the chagrin of his pacifist father.

Becky is beautiful, popular, and fulfills all the expectations of a good pastor’s daughter, that is, until she falls in love with a musician, Tanner, who already has a girlfriend. Becky struggles between doing what she knows is right versus doing what everyone else expects her to do.

Perry is a drug addict and a dealer. His descent into harder and harder drug addiction in Crossroads is accompanied by even more severe mental illness. His addiction also risks bankrupting the Hildebrandt family.

Jonathan Franzen’s prose in Crossroads is perfect, as usual, painting a realistic picture of a family falling apart while offering an authentic analysis of each individual involved. I am also intrigued by this portrait of Midwestern protestant culture, which is very different from my own upbringing. Five stars for each of these five compelling and well-developed characters.

5/5

Crossroads

Crossroads

Crossroads

Crossroads

Crossroads

Crossroads

Crossroads

Crossroads

John Mauro

John Mauro lives in a world of glass amongst the hills of central Pennsylvania. When not indulging in his passion for literature or enjoying time with family, John is training the next generation of materials scientists at Penn State University, where he teaches glass science and materials kinetics. John also loves cooking international cuisine and kayaking the beautiful Finger Lakes region of upstate New York.

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